Sunday, April 1, 2007


It’s a funny thing, dancing with technology.

We put the top down on the red car, take off and and cruise along the interstate. Stopping at a rest area opens the door on a microcosm of modern transport. Weary, but relieved, truckers amble back to their rides. Vacationing families look harried, as they must. A young couple unloads two sets of dumbbells and an enormous black and white cat who climbs up the hillside. The cat watches their exercise routine as they face each other squatting and stretching with the weights. In a few minutes, we’ll all be hurtling along on the pavement again…bound for every destination imaginable.

We went to almost Tennessee, the northeast corner of the national park, skirting the Appalachian Trail, across the Pigeon, up from Waterville. Speed and gasoline can take you lots of places fast, some places not at all. Simply walking along the right trail brings a conflation of space and time. While you cross over the next ridge to view an unexpected bend in the river, you transport to another realm of time, approaching the ancient as well as the remote.

How long since this boulder field was a streambed, a riverbed no less? And these rocks, the size of houses! How and when did they tumble into place? And do they really defy gravity with their balancing acts? Or are they continuing their free-fall, be it ever, ever so slowly? Pulled back to and into the earth while plants spring forth from the ground, expressions of color escaping and exploding from the cold darkness.

Linger by the mossy horseshoe of a cascade on the creek and the secrets of Egyptian pyramids will start to reveal themselves. It’s all right there.
Phenology is just one way of understanding these plants and their place in time. We start at 2000’ elevation and over the next four miles gradually climb another 800’…progressing from shades of green to brown to gray, with multiple strata of colors along the way.

First is a lily field of sorts, full of yellow trillium, its foliage rich and varigated, its blooms a loose bundle of pale yellow.
Higher up a spectrum of violets from deep purple to lavender to white and yellow. Yellow? Yellow violets? That’s almost as priceless as finding blue oranges…and I’m still looking for those.

Higher still, the purple phacelia flows from the rocky crags above…and down the hill toward the creek.

And so it goes the whole way on the trail upstream. Beyond the bridge, we continue along the old rail bed to Walnut Bottoms. In this valley, the black walnut trees could have been six or eight feet in diameter. But as soon as a train could reach them they were gone. We don’t get as far as Walnut Bottoms, but do pass Brakeshoe Spring. Brakeshoe Spring? Aaaahhaa, I get it. This must be where trains, loaded with monumental walnut timber, would stop to cool their brakes, overheating on the long downhill run.

I’m not sure, but things seem to be blooming unusually early, from another abnormally warm winter. It’s March 31, and we see the blooms of Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus floridus), Fire Pink (Silene virginica), Great Chickweed (Stellaria pubera), Dwarf Iris (Iris verna). I wonder what will be blooming along here a month from today, and what will be blooming a year from today. [See "Bloom Times for Wildflowers of the Southern Appalachians."]

Late in the day, our feet are aching. We retrace our steps and return to the red car and return to the highway and return to the city and return to what we think of as our lives.

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